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Phil McDade

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What makes for a “hidden gem” in golf? In the case of GCA contributor John Conley,  it’s the Eau Claire Golf and Country Club, subject of a seminal thread nearly 10 years ago entitled “The BEST Course You've NEVER Heard Of”:
(http://www.golfclubatlas.com/forum/index.php/topic,3001.0.html).

A few other GCA folks have made the trip to Eau Claire G&CC, notably Rick Shefchik, who posted this thread on the course not long after John’s initial foray to the course:  http://www.golfclubatlas.com/forum/index.php/topic,14271.0.html

My thoughts turned recently toward the course and those threads, as our son is now enrolled at the local university and I’d have good reason for visiting Eau Claire over the next several years. Fortuitously, an email arrived recently from GCA’s Jeff Shelman (http://onlygolfmatters.com/), who had arranged for a foursome at EC G&CC and invited me along. We were joined by GCA contributor Dan Kelly and Jerry Zgoda, a scribe for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and known GCA lurker.

Eau Claire, a small community of 65,000, is in the heart of Wisconsin’s dairyland – a fact once enshrined in federal law (dairy farmers throughout the country received greater subsidies on their milk prices the farther they lived from Eau Claire). The Eau Claire G&CC club is one of the oldest in west-central Wisconsin, dating back to 1901. The course has been at its present location – a fine, rolling piece of land abutting the Chippewa River – since 1928. Charles Ramsdell and Tom Vardon are attributed by the club as the course architects. Vardon, the brother of famed British golfer Harry, is somewhat well-known in these parts; he was the long-time professional at White Bear Lake Yacht Golf near Minneapolis-St. Paul, and is credited by Cornish and Whitten for designing several courses in the Upper Midwest (unnamed by the authors, save for Minot CC in North Dakota. He is credited by the Spooner Golf Club, deep in the northwoods of Wisconsin, as the architect of its first nine holes).

Our round at EG G&CC was played on a cool early fall Sunday, on the heels of a local collegiate golf tournament. Shelman, a better golfer than weather prognosticator, had promised “terrific weather” for the round a few days earlier; it began drizzling on the 9th hole, and continued unabated on the back nine. Still, the gray and wet day did not detract from a wonderful round of golf, at a course deserving of its kudos, despite some renovations that contribute to a less-than-stellar routing and a few odd features.

The course is in the traditional parkland style, with most holes framed by tree corridors, some narrower than others. The course has three distinct features:
-- The land is full of some abrupt ups and downs, and moves over terrain that a modern architect might well have avoided. The fairways roll and pitch and are often quite rumpled; the golfer can hit a perfect drive down the middle of the fairway and be left with an uneven lie in many instances.
-- The greens (at least 15 of which are original to the course) aren’t overly contoured, but are sharply tilted, usually from back-to-front, and are sometimes crowned. (We played them after they had been punched, and thus green speeds were quite slow. Faster, summer greens would be a treat to play.)
-- Nearly all the greens are perched up from their surrounds, some notably so; the golfer is often left to wonder if he has enough club on his approach shot.

The course plays to 6,680 yards from the back tees (par 71; rating – 72.1/slope – 128). It plays to 6,364 yards from the whites (70.9/126) and 5,908 from the forward men’s tees (68.9/121). A major renovation about nine years ago moved the clubhouse from the west side of the property to the east side (Conley’s thread details the rationale behind the move). It necessitated the elimination of one par 3, the construction of another to take its place, and a new green on one more hole. Before the clubhouse was moved, most of the current front nine played as the back nine, while much of the current back nine played as the front nine (although it’s worth noting the nines weren’t simply flipped; the hole order was changed significantly).

No. 1 (398/384 par 4)
After a long (looong) walk down the hill upon which the new clubhouse sits, we found the 1st tee, hard by a tributary of the Chippewa River. It’s a fine opener that provides a sense of what is to come during the round – golf played on rolling and rumpled land.


Those who don’t quite catch all of their opening drive will be left with a blind approach into the green.


The view from 150 years; the approach shot must be well-struck to hold this table-top green (short editorial note: on a course that presumably encourages cart use because of the terrain – it’s a challenging walk – this is the only cart path that to my eyes looked out of place).


A closer look at the abrupt rise to the 1st green.


Shelman putts on a typical EC G&CC green – nothing too fancy, but tilted notably from back to front.


No. 2 (361/333 par 4)
One of the few criticisms of the old course routing was that it closed somewhat weakly; this used to be the 18th hole. It’s a modest par 4 to a heavily trapped green.


A look at the approach shot; all of the modern office and apartment buildings in the distance sit on land once owned by the club and the site of the original clubhouse.


No. 3 (414/392 par 3)
A fun hole, with a sharply downhill tee shot to a fairway that snakes through a canyon-like parcel of land. This hole used to be the opener of the back nine.


Yes, the trees on the hillside should be chopped down; still, the bunkers left, woods right, a potential downhill lie, and a somewhat crowned green make this a demanding approach shot.


A closer look at the green, with something of a false front and edges that tend to shrug off shots.


No. 4 (204/191 par 3)
A stern one-shotter; those who steer their shots right to avoid the bunker left may be in for a surprise.


This bunker, to the right of the green, is hidden off the tee; note how the small ridge leading up to the hole on the right hides this sand trap from the tee 200 yards away.


No. 5 (434/397 par 4)
The golfer has to steer his ball in between wetlands and a creek left and a large pond right, created as part of the renovation. (Zgoda, an astute observer of GCA trends, wondered if the dueling water fountains would provoke fits of epileptic seizures among the GCA faithful.)


The green here was shifted considerably leftward to make room for the pond. It’s an approach that feels like there is little margin for error. Covering the flattest land on the course, full of watery potential, and with a saucer-like green, the 5th for my tastes feels out of character with the rest of the course (as others, like Rick Shefchik, have also noted).


No. 6 (134 par 3)
Any disappointment from the previous hole should quickly dissipate when the golfer reaches the tee of the 6th, a charming, beguiling, yet devilish little hole – it’s the shortest hole on the course, and might be the best. A mini-volcano greensite, topped by a green surface that’s all of 2,000 square feet (if that), and sharply tilted from back to front. Misses left or right are punished by a blind chip back up to the tiny target.


Two closer looks at the green, and a third photo of what awaits the golfer who tugs his shot left. A wonderful short par 3 – why aren’t modern-day holes built like this?




No. 7 (449/406 par 4)
A stern test over rollicking terrain; this is one of the better par 4s on the course. The tee shot is slightly offset from the fairway corridor, and despite the density of trees lining the fairway, there is plenty of width here to find level turf.


At about 200 yards from the green, the fairway tumbles into a valley. The big hitters can hope to catch this speed slot and be left with a short iron into the green; those who are short of the slot are left with a blind approach into a small oval of a green.


A look back at the fairway.


No. 8 (371/363 par 4)
A tight drive, tightest on the course, and a tree standing sentinel on the right side of the fairway makes this dogleg right play even tighter.


Note the folds in the land; the golfer is often confronted with a less-than-flat lie when his ball reaches the fairway off the tee.


No. 9 (529/490 par 5)
The only par 5 on the front nine is a strong closer; the fairway opens up once past the semi-claustrophobic environs of the tee.


Note the width of the fairway corridor here; although tree-lined, I thought with only a few exceptions that Eau Claire provided plenty of width for the golfer.


Ramsdell and Vardon used the same feature on the 9th that they incorporated so well into the 7th; at 120 yards from the green, the hole dives into a valley. Here’s the view from 150 yards out; the green is completely blind, with only the very tip of the white flag visible against the dark background of pine trees.


A closer look at the green.


No. 10 (361/350 par 4)
From the 9th green, the golfer must make a long journey up a steep hill, past the clubhouse, and up to the northernmost reaches of the property, where the 10th tee resides. The original routing had a par 3 (hole #5) of 175 yards in this area of the course; now it’s parking for the clubhouse. The tee shot here is modestly downhill to a green that’s offset to the left from the fairway.


 A look at the approach shot.


The Ramsdell /Vardon greens probably need to be seen (and played) in person to appreciate; this fairly large oval offered a number of interesting pin positions.


Gratuitous homer reference (Go Blugolds!).


No. 11 (406/398 par 4)
Few things give the golfer more of a thrill than a tee shot from on high, with the ball sailing on down far below. Here Ramsdell and Vardon had the good sense to place a tee on the very edge of a steep drop-off into the valley below. The creek in the distance is probably 275 yards from the back tee.


From about 200 yards away, the golfer takes aim at a green sited on a small rise in the terrain.


A look back at the 11th fairway, with the tee on top of the hill.


No. 12 (205/175 par 3)
A long walk back from the 11th green is required to get to the 12th tee, built on extra land the club owned when the clubhouse move necessitated the elimination of the old par 3 5th hole. Although a challenge because its length, the hole is fairly undistinguished, and it interferes with what had been a very natural transition and walk between the 11th and 13th holes, which had been the 7th and 8th holes in the old routing.


No. 13 (515/504 par 5)
Note the fairway bunker on this mid-range par 5; it’s one of only two fairway bunkers on the course, and – two-thirds into the round – the first one encountered by the golfer on his round.


The rolling terrain of the 13th is ideal land for golf; Ramsdell and Vardon again placed a green at the top of one of the folds.


No. 14 (408/397 par 4)
A neat use of the land on this straightaway par 4 – a little less than 200 yards from the tee, the fairway dives into another valley.


Although guarded by two large bunkers, the green here allows for a running approach shot (not on this day, admittedly). Even from 200+ yards away, you can see the significant tilt of the green set against a small hillside.


No. 15 (431/425 par 4)
The tee here sits quite close to the development that helped finance the new clubhouse. This used to be the opening hole on the course under the old routing.


Playing in the opposite direction of the previous hole, the 15th nonetheless plays quite similarly; the strong golfer can catch a speed slot to add another 50-75 yards on the drive.


A look at another somewhat crowned greensite; Eau Claire is a demanding second-shot course, as a less-than-precise approach may be shrugged off by the green shoulders.


No. 16 (144/132 par 3)
A short respite before Eau Claire’s tough finish.


No. 17 (432/422 par 4)
An elevated tee shot to a dogleg that sweeps right, with the course’s only other fairway bunker looming for those too bold (or straight) with their drive.


The approach is another long one into an elevated green site.


No. 18 (481/471 par 5)
Perhaps the most polarizing hole at Eau Claire, this short par 5 has a slightly elevated tee to a fairway pinched between a creek meandering down the left side and a hill jutting into the fairway from the right (it had really started to rain by now…)


The fairway turns sharply right here; the green is benched halfway up the hillside on the right.  One can play safely out to the left for the second shot; an aggressive line is to cut off the dogleg by aiming over the hill, with the lone pine just to the right of the fairway serving as something of an aiming point (one can see the cart path leading back up to the clubhouse in the rear of this picture).


Here’s where my second shot ended up; 10 yards away from the left edge of the fairway, about 150 yards out – and my line to the flag cut off by the large trees. Hmmm…


A look back at the sharp turn of the fairway from the backside of the green.


Here’s a look at the old routing on display in the clubhouse.

(For those into these things, here’s how the new routing works on the old course map: Starting at the center of the map, old 17 is now 1; old 18 is now 2; old 10 is now 3; old 11 is now 4; old 12 is now 5 with a new green; old 13 is now 6; old 14 is now 7; old 15 is now 8; old 16 is now 9; old 5 is NLE, and the site of the clubhouse and parking lot; old 6 is now 10; old 7 is now 11; the new par 3 12 was built essentially along the bottom right horizontal portion of the frame; old 8 is now 13; old 9 is now 14; old 1 is now 15; old 2 is now 16; old 3 is now 17; old 4 is now 18.)

Overall, I’d rate Eau Claire G&CC a very good test of golf, probably a 6 on the Doak scale (http://www.linksmagazine.com/best_of_golf/features/the-doak-scale/). Although it was my first time at the course, and I didn’t play its previous incarnation, the new routing does seem a bit awkward, with a long journey to the 1st tee, the un-natural positioning of the added par 3 on the back nine, and a quite difficult, long walk from the 9th green to the 10th tee.

Having said that, the course has a bunch of fine holes, some of them (Nos. 3, 6, 7, and 9 on the front nine, and No. 11 on the back) quite good. It’s an enjoyable round of golf that can be demanding of one’s game – the hallmark of a solid course.
« Last Edit: October 01, 2011, 11:38:21 PM by Phil McDade »

PThomas

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Re: In the heart of America's Dairyland: Eau Claire G&CC (photo essay)
« Reply #1 on: October 01, 2011, 11:15:27 PM »
great job Phil...some interesting features out there it appears
198 played, only 2 to go!!

Jeff Shelman

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Re: In the heart of America's Dairyland: Eau Claire G&CC (photo essay)
« Reply #2 on: October 01, 2011, 11:31:57 PM »
Phil,

Great work here, as usual.

Good you were able to drive up to join us. Despite my poor weather forecasting, it was a fun day.

John_Conley

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Re: In the heart of America's Dairyland: Eau Claire G&CC (photo essay)
« Reply #3 on: October 01, 2011, 11:41:02 PM »
Thanks Phil.  I haven't seen it since the reconfiguration.

Mike McGuire

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Re: In the heart of America's Dairyland: Eau Claire G&CC (photo essay)
« Reply #4 on: October 01, 2011, 11:55:47 PM »
One of my sons  had a cup of coffee on the Eau Claire college team that had this as their home course.

Typical Wisconsin style. World class terrain covered  up with trees and sophomoric bunkering. Likely considered " in great shape " which means lots of irrigation - needed or not. 

Andrew Lewis

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Re: In the heart of America's Dairyland: Eau Claire G&CC (photo essay)
« Reply #5 on: October 02, 2011, 06:41:44 AM »
Phil -

Another excellent review; many thanks for taking the time!

How wide were the fairways, on average?  And you refer to the course as a second-shot course -- to what degree was good driving rewarded with a preferred angle/line in to the green?  This is especially interesting given the relative lack of fairway bunkers.

Best, Andrew

Phil McDade

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Re: In the heart of America's Dairyland: Eau Claire G&CC (photo essay)
« Reply #6 on: October 02, 2011, 02:00:59 PM »
Andrew:

Re. approach shots -- I'll bail out and say, "It depends!"

We played in the afternoon, following a morning college tourney, and there were some tucked pins, so obviously there was an advantage in coming in from certain angles to a pin tucked, e.g., far right side of the green (see hole #3 as an example, where it was  alot better coming in from the left side of the fairway with that pin tucked short right.) On a hole like #1, I think in general the golfer is better off to the right coming into that green, but it's not as if you're dead coming in from the left.

I guess my main point about it being a second-shot course is that EClaire struck me as a place that can challenge your notions of club length, and how far you hit a typical iron. Alot of the greens are raised a bit (or significantly so, like #1), so you have to take into consideration whether your 7-iron, for instance, is going to go the distance you think, or whether you need to add a club to account for the raised green. Holes 1, 2 (sort of), 6, 10, 11, 13, 15, 17 and 18 all have this element of keeping the golfer guessing if he has enough club into those greens. (For instance, in our foursome, I think we were all short of the green on the little par 3 6th hole -- all of 120 yards that day). In addition, the greens -- while not domed, or upside-down teacups -- have an element of green edges that slope a bit away from the center of the green. So a shot that hits the green near the edge risks rolling off the green (not as much on the damp day we played than I'm guessing in drier conditions).

The one thing that did strike me is that the long, straight hitter has some advantages out there -- there are some significant speed slots out there than can add 50-100 yards to a drive (holes 1, 2, 3, 7, 9, 14, and 15 all have elements of this, some with significant slopes downhill). As for fairway width -- I didn't pace anything off, but I'd say 30 yards? Some are close to 40 yards. I'd say 1, 3, maybe 7, 8 especially, 9 on the tee, and 10 can feel constrained, but to me (and I'm a width kind of guy) the rest of the course didn't feel too tight.




Tiger_Bernhardt

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Re: In the heart of America's Dairyland: Eau Claire G&CC (photo essay)
« Reply #7 on: October 02, 2011, 10:09:01 PM »
Nice looking course and a great week for Wisconsin.

Bruce Wellmon

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Re: In the heart of America's Dairyland: Eau Claire G&CC (photo essay)
« Reply #8 on: October 02, 2011, 11:39:46 PM »
My wife is from Eau Claire. Years ago, I played ECCC with my father in law before the reconfiguration. I remember lots of crowned greens with sharp drop offs. It was certainly before the huge building(s) nearby. I remember #3 and #11 well. Time for a return visit.
« Last Edit: October 02, 2011, 11:41:24 PM by Bruce Wellmon »

PCCraig

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Re: In the heart of America's Dairyland: Eau Claire G&CC (photo essay)
« Reply #9 on: October 03, 2011, 07:43:54 AM »
Thanks for the write-up Phil. Great stuff as usual in your reviews.

The course certainly looks interesting and has some quirky features!
H.P.S.

Dan Kelly

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Re: In the heart of America's Dairyland: Eau Claire G&CC (photo essay)
« Reply #10 on: October 03, 2011, 10:01:26 AM »
A very good summation, Phil. Thanks.

I would add only this: I think No. 8 and the tee shot on No. 9 are insanely tight and definitely demand some chain-saw work. There are probably lots of other trees I'd take down, if I were king for a day, but the woods between 8 and 9 are where I'd start.

Then I'd march over to No. 18, which would be SO much better a hole if they took down a bunch of trees on the inside of the dogleg and allowed a go at the green. I think if I were going to play EC regularly, I'd end up hitting driver, 7-iron layup -- in other words, no fun. Not what I want from a finishing hole.

Favorite hole: No. 3.
"There's no money in doing less." -- Joe Hancock, 11/25/2010
"Rankings are silly and subjective..." -- Tom Doak, 3/12/2016

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